Should I Attend a Writing Workshop?
Workshops have gotten some bad press lately. Some writers claim that workshops associated with formal study programs result in cookie-cutter “workshop poems” or “New Yorker” stories. I’ve also heard horror stories about workshops where the critiques can be brutal. That’s not my idea of a productive workshop! A good workshop can help a writer generate new work, get useful feedback on a current project, and even serve as a stepping-stone to larger projects. I know one writer who took two online fiction workshops, and the stories she produced there helped her get into a top-rated low-residency MFA program.
I’ve been writing for more than 20 years, but if I hear about a writing workshop in my area, I sign up for it. I love the challenge of writing to a prompt, the fun of meeting other writers, and the pleasure of hearing or reading someone’s work-in-progress. I value getting comments about my own work-in-progress, and getting tips from more experienced writers. I’ve been going to Peter Murphy’s Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway almost every January since 1997, and more than a dozen of my published poems got their start there. When I was writing my second novel, I workshopped chapters at a local writer’s group. Finding out what worked and what didn’t work for the group members helped me shape that manuscript, which was published in 2008 as The Other Sister.
What happens at a writing workshop?
If you’re new to writing, the idea of a workshop can be intimidating. After all, reading a piece of your beloved writing to a group of people who may be friends or strangers, and then sitting silently (as is typical of many workshops) while your work is critiqued, can be uncomfortable the first few times. But if the criticism helps you craft a story, essay or poem into a stronger piece, then the process can be well worth it. And having the chance to work with a really good writer can be invaluable. One of the first poetry workshops I took was with Denise Levertov. I was just starting out, and could hardly believe that I was actually sitting in the same room with a poet whose work I’d studied in college lit classes. One poem she critiqued was about a person sitting in front of the “warm blue glow” of a television screen. This was in the days of big, cathode-ray tube TV sets, not today’s flat-screen panels, and Ms. Levertov lectured us sternly about the need to be better observers, because a television set has a cool blue glow, and being imprecise about that fact could ruin the poem for anyone who knew how TV sets really looked. It wasn’t my poem being discussed, but I took the lesson to heart and work on getting the details right whether I am writing poetry or fiction.
Being critiqued by a Famous Writer is one style of workshop. Others are more egalitarian, such as the Getaway. There, we are given a prompt in the morning and only a couple of hours to write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft” of a poem. After lunch, our drafts are workshopped at a table of eight or so participants. A leader at each table facilitates discussion of everyone’s drafts, after reminding us that we’re looking at very new work that is far from finished. Instead of nitpicking words, we all point out aspects of the poem that resonate and suggest those that might need revising. I’m always fascinated at how differently each writer interprets the morning’s prompt, which is usually goofy and accompanied by several seemingly unrelated requirements designed to nudge us out of our usual themes or forms. For me, this is a fun and productive way to produce three or four new poems in a long weekend.
Another style of workshop is very informal: A group of writers simply get together on a regular basis and share each other’s work. These informal workshops may meet weekly, biweekly, or monthly in a coffee shop, public library, or someone’s home. Instead of a prompt, at each meeting, group members bring in whatever project they are working on. Typically, they’ll email the work ahead of time so that when the group meets they can get right to the critiques. If the group is small, there’s usually time to discuss everyone’s work in a given session. Larger groups may focus on the work of only a few members at a time.
Any of these formats can be delivered in person or online. I think that online workshops can be terrific, because they offer the convenience of a flexible schedule. You may have to submit work and critique work each week, but if you’re a night owl you can be workshopping on Wednesday at 2 a.m. while an early bird may be workshopping at 5 a.m. on Friday. Online workshops really need good leaders to encourage participation and to keep critiques cordial. Writers tend to bruise easily, and a critique delivered online may read more harshly than one that is spoken, so a good leader will see to it that criticism stays tactful as well as constructive.
How do I make the most of a workshop?
Whatever kind of workshop you attend, it’s really important to take notes when your work is being critiqued. Even if participants hand your work back with their own marginal notes on it, they will give much more information when they discuss your writing. Taking good notes while they’re speaking can help you when you’re back home and revising. It’s up to you whether to take their advice or not, but if everyone misses the point of your piece, then it’s a pretty good bet that you need to revise it.
While you’re at the workshop, have fun, and try not to take any of the criticism personally. As the name suggests, at a workshop, it’s all about the work—not the writer. (It isn’t called a writershop, is it?)
Where can I find workshops and writing groups?
If you know other writers, ask them if they’ve gone to workshops they liked. Also, look online, ask your local librarian, and check the ads in magazines like Poets & Writers. Join local or regional writers’ organizations, too; their newsletters, websites or chat forums will often alert you to upcoming workshops.
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Patricia Valdata is an award-winning author, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and president of Cloudstreet Communications. For more information on Pat, please check out her website.